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Fox May Be Mexico's Real Thing to Loosen PRI's Grip on Power


MEXICO CITY — Former Coca-Cola Co. executive Vicente Fox, long the underdog in Mexico's presidential race, is making an unexpectedly close battle out of what was expected to be yet another easy victory for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

The only question is: Can Fox maintain that momentum, or has his campaign already peaked long before the July 2 vote?

Most polls in recent weeks show the charismatic Fox narrowing the gap, and in one survey taking the lead over PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, who hopes to keep intact his party's record of winning every presidential election since 1929.

The centrist PRI, trying to remake itself after mediocre showings since 1997 midterm elections, grabbed the initiative by holding Mexico's first presidential primary in November. Labastida's victory gave him a legitimacy that many analysts felt would enable the PRI to extend its reign as the world's longest-ruling party.

But Fox, nominee of the National Action Party, has campaigned relentlessly against what he calls "the more-of-the-same candidate." And Fox has portrayed himself as the only opponent capable of beating Labastida, a bureaucrat supported by the vast national PRI machine.

Although Labastida still commands the lead in nine of 10 major surveys, his margin has narrowed from an average 12 percentage points in November to about 4 points in February, pollster Daniel Lund noted. The pollster's MUND company puts Labastida at 41% and Fox at 37%, with 22% supporting Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

"I think it's a horse race now," Lund said.

Cardenas has so far failed to catch the imagination of voters, earning between 11% and 18% in most polls.

Fox has argued that Cardenas supporters who are seriously committed to ending the PRI's monopoly on executive power should shift their allegiance to him. Some analysts, and a few politicians, have even suggested that Cardenas drop out and back Fox, though that is unlikely given the wide ideological divisions between the two.

What's more, Cardenas notes that his support surged toward the end of his past presidential bids in 1988 and 1994, and he expects it to happen again. If so, the anti-PRI vote could again be split.

The Labastida campaign likes to suggest that Fox has peaked. The PRI candidate's spokesman, Alejandro Valenzuela, said the narrowing of the gap "was clearly anticipated in November. After the primary, the popularity of the PRI was at an all-time high and we expected it to come down."

The PRI angrily dismisses as badly flawed the one independent poll showing Fox ahead. That survey was conducted for the respected Mexico City consulting firm Economists and Associates Group, known as GEA, and was paid for by six major political parties and other institutions. The poll showed Fox ahead, 44.2% to Labastida's 35.8%, with Cardenas at 18.1%.

Fox said he and Labastida each have the backing of about 40% of the voters, with a surprisingly low 6% undecided and the rest split among other candidates.

Mexico's electoral reforms require pollsters to disclose who paid them and how the poll was conducted. The quality of major polls is acknowledged to have improved substantially over the last decade.

Polls by three major newspapers--Reforma, Universal and Milenio--have shown Labastida ahead of Fox by margins ranging from 1 percentage point to 10 points, while a recent PRI-sponsored poll gave Labastida a 12-point lead.

Guillermo Valdes, political analyst for GEA, said that despite differences in the results, the polls all show the same trend, evidence that "we really are seeing the most competitive presidential succession in the history of Mexico.

"In the past, the PRI started out looking like it would win by 50 laps, and sometimes it ended winning only by five laps," Valdes said. "But this time . . . the PRI cannot afford its traditional late-campaign erosion of support.

"The fact is that we are seeing a real possibility that Fox could win," Valdes said, "and that there could be an alternation of power in Mexico for the first time."

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